Monthly Archive for March, 2013

Never Give Your Credit Card to the Wall Street Journal

Having just discovered a staggering $910 (!!!!) in unexplained and unauthorized charges to my MasterCard by the Wall Street Journal (no, these were not legit renewal fees), I have just spent what seems like the better part of four days telling my story on the phone to one customer service rep after another, each of whom has found a new way to lie to me. (“We’ll call you back by the end of the day” was the most frequent lie, followed by “we’re putting through a half-refund now and someone with higher authority will call you shortly to arrange the rest” — which turned out to be two lies in one). Finally, I decided to send an email with the whole sad story, asking for a refund and mentioning that I sure hope there won’t be any resulting confusion that interrupts my delivery service. I got an email back saying “Per your request, we’re cancelling your delivery service”. Today I had no newspaper — and still no refund.

Think of the top three worst customer service stories you’ve ever heard. Chances are excellent that versions of all three have cropped up along the way in this sordid saga, the details of which I will suppress because I’m sure they’re less interesting to you than they are to me.

But I will mention this: Aside from the lying, and the lying and the lying, there’s also the fact that absolutely nobody appears to keep any record of these conversations, so that each time I call, I’m starting from scratch, explaining the whole story to a customer service rep who won’t put me through to a supervisor until I rehash the whole thing, then waiting on hold ten minutes for said supervisor, who needs the entire story told from scratch again before connecting me to the department that’s really equipped to deal with this, where I wait on hold for another ten minutes before telling my story yet again and, 50% of the time, getting disconnected. When I call back, it’s back to Square One.

Oh, yes….and they’ve also studiously ignored my repeated requests/demands that they expunge my credit card number from their records, and refused to acknowledge my repeated notifications that they do not have my authorization to charge my credit card for anything ever again.

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Soda Jerk

The one lesson I most want my students to learn is this: You can’t just say anything. It’s important to care about making sense. So I find it particularly galling when people violate this rule while presenting themselves to the public as economists. It undercuts the single most important lesson we have to teach.

THe latest culprit is the unchastened serial offender Robert Frank, writing in the Business section of the Sunday New York Times. His argument has two parts, one philosophical and one economic. In both cases he substitutes blather for analysis. I’m less concerned about the philosophical part, because it’s such obvious nonsense that I can’t imagine anyone will take it seriously. But the fact that he got the economics wrong, and more importantly, his implied message that it doesn’t matter whether you get the economics wrong, seems calculated to undermine the public’s faith in economists. That’s the part I take personally.

Frank’s subject this time is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to curb the sale of large sugary drinks. While acknowledging that such a ban would curb individual freedom in some dimensions, Frank argues that it would simultaneously enhance individual freedom in others — namely, it would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your child from drinking lots of soda.

Now, I do not doubt that for some parents, a ban on large sugary drinks would make it easier to prevent children from drinking lots of soda, but to call this an enhancement of freedom, you (or Robert Frank) would have to use the word “freedom” in a very unorthodox way. By Frank’s definition, a ban on Democratic campaign ads would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your children from voting for Democrats. Would Frank endorse such terminology? Or suggest that this effect, in and of itself, might suffice to consider the advertising ban a generally pro-freedom initiative?

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How Markets Work

A while back, I posted a link to the first of my four talks at the 2012 Cato University. Today, I’m posting the second talk, titled “How Markets Work”, with the others to appear eventually.

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Incidentally, I won’t be at the 2013 Cato U, but other stellar speakers will be. This really is an extraordinarily well run event, and I’ve met many fascinating people every time I’ve been there. It’s not too late to register!

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Friday Puzzle

Flightstats.com is a website that reports the on-time performance of individual airline flights. If you look up, oh, say, USAirways Flight 464, you’ll find this assessment:

Now the puzzle: How, exactly, does one go about controlling for standard deviation and mean?

Hat tip to Michael Lugo at God Plays Dice

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Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville

Note added on 4/5: Some readers missed the point of this post very badly, which means that it could have been written more clearly. Here is a brief attempt to clarify.

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Here are three dilemmas about public policy:

Farnsworth McCrankypants just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking at pornography. It’s not that he thinks porn causes bad behavior; it’s just the idea of other people’s viewing habits that causes him deep psychic distress. Ought Farnsworth’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Farnsworth an argument for discouraging pornography through, say, taxation or regulation?

Granola McMustardseed just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be altering the natural state of a wilderness area. It’s not that Granola ever plans to visit that area or to derive any other direct benefits from it; it’s just the idea of wilderness desecration that causes her deep psychic distress. Ought Granola’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Granola an argument for discouraging, say, oil drilling in Alaska, either through taxes or regulation?

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

If your answers to questions 1, 2 and 3 were not all identical, what is the key difference among them?

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History Repeats Itself


Benjamin Franklin was against smallpox vaccination — until his own unvaccinated son died of smallpox, whereupon Franklin changed sides and began urging other parents to vaccinate their children.

This has always struck me as a bit of a black mark against Franklin’s rationality. He’d always known that smallpox kills; he’d always known that vaccinations (at least in the early 18th century) could also kill. As a parent, he’d weighed one risk against the other and used his best judgment about where to place his bets. In a world where smallpox deaths were commonplace, his own son’s death was just one more virtually insignificant data point. Could inoculation have been an unacceptable risk against a disease that killed 100,000 people a year, but a prudent precaution against a disease that killed 100,001?

That’s how I feel, too, about Senator Rob Portman’s turnabout on the issue of gay marriage after learning that his son is gay. Continue reading ‘History Repeats Itself’

Triumphs of Capitalism

By the standards of history, you, I, and (unless you’re a very atypical blog reader) pretty much everyone we’ve ever met is fabulously wealthy. How wealthy? One good measure is our ability and willingness to support the frivolity of others. Here are two recent technological innovations that give eloquent testimony to just how well off we are.

First, the Oreo separating machine. (Yes, I realize that every other blogger on earth has already linked to this one, but if you haven’t actually watched it yet, you really should click through):

And then….

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Thought for the Day

If I could choose any name I wanted and require everyone to call me by that name, I think I would probably go with something considerably more creative than “Francis”. Just saying.

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The Most Important Date Ever

I am not one of the public intellectuals who were queried by The Atlantic (link might require subscription) as to which date most changed world history — but on the Internet, you can always spout off without an invitation.

It’s hard to argue with Freeman Dyson, who nominates the day an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, clearing the evolutionary path for the likes of you and me.

(Actually, it’s remarkably easy to argue with Freeman Dyson. I know this, having done so over tea in Princeton, many years ago. He made it very easy indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he was 100% right and I was 100% wrong.)

At the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, the standup comedian W. Kamau Bell, after lamenting that there’s no way he can get this right so he might as well punt, nominates the day Michael Jackson first performed the moonwalk on national TV. Unfortunately, his intent to give the most ridiculous possible answer is thwarted by one Neera Tanden of something called the Center for American Progress, who, with an apparently straight face, nominates August 26, 1920 (the day American women gained the right to vote) — an answer that begins by placing 20th century America at the center of the Universe and proceeds downhill from there.

Other 20th-century answers (the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) are at least more serious, and I think that Anne-Marie Slaughter‘s nomination of the still-very-recent-by-historical-standards signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 is even defensible. But then what about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which arguably laid the political and intellectual groundwork that made the Declaration possible?

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Debt and Growth

Is the public debt a drag on economic growth? Economist Salim Furth reviews the evidence here and finds cause for alarm.

My own instincts are substantially less alarmist, but it should be noted that unlike me, Furth (and those he quotes) have spent substantial time thinking hard about this question.

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Romer on Minimum Wages

Christy Romer, writing in the New York Times, deems the Earned Income Tax Credit a more palatable alternative to the minimum wage. So do I. (So, I feel confident, do the great majority of economists). But there is almost no overlap between Romer’s reasons and mine. I believe her reasons are wrong.

First, Romer observes (correctly) that while the minimum wage tends to reduce employment (though perhaps not by very much), the EITC has the opposite effect. That’s because the minimum wage is essentially a tax on hiring unskilled labor, while the EITC is a subsidy. When you tax something you get less of it; when you subsidize something, you get more.

But, contra Romer, that’s no reason to prefer the EITC. Since when, after all, is it automatically better to have too much of something than too little? Underemployment and overemployment are both bad things. Indeed, if the minimum wage (for whatever reason) has very little effect on employment while the EITC increases it substantially past the efficient level, that’s a good reason to prefer the minimum wage.

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Live Streaming Sex

The Future of Freedom Foundation plans to livestream my talk this afternoon, titled “More Sex is Safer Sex and Other Surprises”. I believe you’ll be able to find the stream here. Starting time (I think!) is 6PM.

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Update: livestream cancelled for techical reasons but high quality video will be available in a few days.